Jumping from Modern Warfare 2 to Bad Company 2 isn't recommended. While both are broadly similar in concept - modern military shooters set in an imaginary land war between America and Russia - the difference in style couldn't be more pronounced. Infinity Ward's big-bollocked blockbuster has the bone-rattling volume and GRAAAAAGH KILLING SPREE! adrenaline rush, but try those bombastic Hollywood heroics over in DICE's theatre of war and you'll be shot to ribbons before you can say "danger close".
Currently titillating PS3 owners with an exclusive multiplayer beta, a whopping four months from release, Battlefield looks set to continue its conquest of the middle ground between Call of Duty's crowd-pleasing mayhem and Operation Flashpoint's brutal realism. Even more than its predecessor, which marked the series' debut on consoles, Bad Company 2 is undeniably part of the PC lineage. This is smart, savage war-gaming, where a cool head and a steady hand are rewarded over grenade-spamming and shooting from the hip.
The beta is virtually identical to the one that heralded the first Bad Company game. Rush is the game mode, and it sets out the game's stall in convincing style. The attacking team must push into enemy territory and destroy two communication arrays. The defenders must stop them. Whenever both arrays are destroyed, the defenders must fall back to the next section of the map. Victory for the attackers comes when there's nowhere left to run, while the defenders benefit from infinite respawns and must whittle down the enemy tickets until they're forced to withdraw.
The map that plays host to this blood-soaked push and pull is Arica Harbor. A sun-baked shantytown on the edge of a dazzling blue sea, it's a sprawling play area that offers opportunities for every style of play without ever feeling like you're being herded into simplistic stand-offs. Open desert plains give way to a multi-tiered cluster of houses and derelict towers as the attackers advance, culminating in a last stand at the docks themselves, where trashed cargo containers provide makeshift cover.
The sand-blasted environments have been shorn of anything not directly connected to combat - identical burned-out car shells offer the only hint that people may once have lived normal lives in this parched hellhole - but it still feels convincing thanks to some lovely ambient effects. Light and sound play a big part in the game, while the sweeping banks of smoke and dust add to the atmosphere without choking the gameplay.
Variety is the cornerstone of Battlefield, and Bad Company 2 isn't about to deviate from that ethos. There are four character classes - Assault, Engineer, Recon and Medic - and each offers its own expanding loadouts of guns, gadgets and secondary items. The longer you play, the more you can tweak your arsenal to your taste.
The stats screen, meanwhile, hints at what lies in store next year. Tanks, APCs, quad bikes and helicopters are all in the beta, but as yet there's no sign of the aquatic vehicles you'll be able to commandeer. As always where DICE is concerned, if you find yourself getting hammered doing one thing, it's incredibly easy to try something else instead.
This mix-and-match approach helps to balance out some familiar frustrations in the early hours of play. Battlefield is a game where death comes quickly, and often silently. Wounds heal with time, but it's a slower process than the fast recharge most FPS players will now be used to.
Most of the time you won't even see where the fatal bullet came from, and experienced players can't help but dominate the map, picking off enemies with unnerving ease while you spray bullets in a futile attempt to at least cause them some damage as you go down. It's aggravating but never frustrating, thanks to a ranking system that gets you upwardly mobile with agreeable speed, and a respawn system that gets you back into the action within a few seconds.
Whereas the scenery destruction was played up in Bad Company, for this sequel it's much less showy - even though the results are far more spectacular. There's a quiet confidence in the way the game just lets you discover just how much carnage you can wreak on the environment.
Walls no longer break into large squares, but chip away slowly, revealing the iron skeleton inside. Should the damage get too much, buildings collapse convincingly; walls crumbling, the roof sliding forlornly down into the rubble. For a game with so many ways to approach bunkered enemies, it's a small yet significant improvement. There really are no safe places on this battlefield, and the result is a boot up the arse for anyone caught hanging around for easy kills.
There are some obvious grumbles, however. Graphically it often looks stunning, though the cost in frame-rate and v-sync tearing may be too much for some. Objects and textures frequently pop into existence in front of you, while the crude way that destroyed vehicles vanish after a few seconds rather spoils the verisimilitude.
Control, too, is an area that could benefit from attention come crunch time. Movement feels heavy, especially where sideways motion is concerned, and while this can be a deliberate decision to make things feel more real, the floaty jump suggests otherwise.
It's also easy to get snagged on things, or sometimes even when there's nothing there, and in a game where a few shots is the difference between life and death, anything that leaves you vulnerable feels unfair. The continued absence of a prone position falls into the same complaint bucket, especially for those playing in the sniper class. The ability to drop to the ground at the first sign of danger would save a lot of respawns, but the perfunctory ducking manoeuvre is no more up to the task than it was in the first Bad Company.
With a healthy distance to go before the game has to march onto shelves, there's plenty of time to address such relatively minor problems. It doesn't seem like Bad Company 2 is going to win over anyone who isn't already sold on the Battlefield series, but there's an easy appeal to the way DICE has refined its template over the years and on current form Bad Company 2 seems destined to be the thinking gamer's war-fetish shooter of choice for 2010.
Battlefield: Bad Company 2 is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on 5th March 2010.